Airbus Defence and Space approached INITION to assist in developing an autonomous navigation system for the ExoMars Rover Vehicle as part of the research project to send an exploratory vehicle to Mars.
Airbus Defence and Space wanted to develop and test a fully autonomous six-wheeled ExoMars Rover Vehicle for a European Space Agency (ESA) mission to send an Orbiter and an Entry, Descent and Landing demonstrator to Mars in 2016, followed by the Rover in 2018. The ultimate goal of the mission is to search for potential biosignatures of Martian origin, to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars.
Owing to the huge distance between Earth and Mars, which prevents real-time communication, the challenge was to develop a system which enabled the ExoMars Rover Vehicle to navigate independently across hazardous, unexplored terrain to arrive safely at a pre-determined destination, finding the optimal path autonomously.
This wasn’t our first time stepping up to the plate on this project.
In 2010, Airbus Defence and Space approached us to install the original version of the tracking technology system which consisted of an IS-1200 VisTracker InertiaCam inertial camera tracking system from Intersense, along with 56 reference (fiducial) markers.
The InertiaCam was installed on the ExoMars Rover Vehicle, whilst the 56 uniquely coded fiducials were positioned on the ceiling of the Mars Yard so that the vehicle’s movement and location could be determined and tracked as it moved around the pre-calibrated space of the ‘Marscape in real-time’.
Created on-location at the Airbus Defence in Space centre in Stevenage, the space was a simulated ‘Martian landscape’, complete with real sand, rocks and boulders which are used to replicate the terrain on Mars as closely as possible here on Earth.
Back to the future: 2014
The tracking set-up (otherwise known as the Locomotion Performance Model – or LPM – Group Truth Subsystem) is a 6 degree-of-freedom motion tracking system which, using the camera and the fiducials, is able to determine the position and attitude of the subject (in this case, the Rover vehicle) within the confines of a pre-loaded constellation map.
Following on from the success of the original 2010 project, in January of this year, Airbus Defence and Space expanded the Mars Yard by over two times its original size.
When asked, we were more than happy to step in to expand our original installation, increasing the number of unique fiducials from 56 to 210.
The data collected as a result of the research project will be used to finalise the programming for the ExoMars Rover Vehicle that will eventually be sent to space as part of the ESA mission in 2018.
So, although we personally won’t be going to Mars, we’d like to think our handy-work went a long way to helping the Rover get there instead.
The Mars Rover story was covered on BBC News.